Hard as it may be to believe, Guns n’ Roses was once a cool and somewhat threatening rock band, bringing genuine raunch to a pathetically pouffy era before turning into a real-life Spinal Tap. Formed in 1985 by five Hollywood misfits (two locals, two Indiana refugees and a Seattle scene veteran), the quintet quickly won local raves with gritty performances and low-lifestyle imaging: early flyers proclaimed the group “Fresh from detox.” Worshiping at the twin altars of Aerosmith and AC/DC, the band debuted with the first-ever fake indie buzz-building release: the limited-edition Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide. In fact released by Geffen (albeit with no mention of the conglomerate name), the 12-inch contains two tepid originals and two covers that, as later revealed, most likely weren’t even recorded live.
Appetite for Destruction is another story. Combining an incisive pop sensibility with a fist-pumping classic-rock stance, Appetite was probably the first real rock album that a lot of teen metalheads had ever heard; if W. Axl Rose’s Joplinesque screech became too grating, Slash’s fiery and melodic guitar work made the songs sparkle. The sound was fleshed out with doses of ’70s denim that drew in an older audience, and with songs like “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” “Paradise City” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” Appetite for Destruction went on to sell many millions of copies. It also turned some of the bandmembers into hitherto-unimagined rock-star morons.
The cash-in G n’ R Lies pairs the Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide EP with four semi-acoustic tracks. While the sappy “Patience” revealed a latent ballad streak, some of the other songs’ racist and sexist lyrics fueled such massive media overkill that self-parody became a foregone conclusion.
Released some four years after the debut, the sprawling Use Your Illusion — two separate albums with matching artwork and no seeming logic to their division of 30 songs, over two and a half hours in all — contains about half an hour of music that lives up to its absurdly grandiose ambitions. The band impresses on the ambitious “Coma” and “Civil War,” and rocks through several energetic no-brainers, but the albums are burdened alternately by ludicrous excess (full orchestras and choirs) and many throwaway tracks; oddly, some of the most overblown songs date back to the band’s first demos.
Recorded mostly during the Use Your Illusion sessions, The Spaghetti Incident? is a back-to-the-roots-styled album of covers that contains some reasonably intriguing tracks (from the Skyliners, Stooges, Nazareth, even Soundgarden) along with several abominations. As a nominal collection of influences, the gallery hangs up the work of the Dead Boys, T.Rex, New York Dolls, UK Subs, Misfits, Fear and the Damned with the pretentious tastefulness of nouveau riche art patrons.
The two years of staggering stadium rock excess that followed left the band’s future somewhat hazy. It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere, the first solo album from Slash (Saul Hudson), contains potential G n’ R songs Rose reportedly rejected. With ex-Jellyfish member Eric Dover doing a lame Axl impersonation and Alice in Chains bassist Mike Inez in the Snakepit lineup, the album claims a couple of decent rockers but is very repetitive. Slash has also made countless guest appearances/collaborations, most notably with Iggy Pop, Michael Jackson, Carole King (!) and, best of all, high-school chum Lenny Kravitz on Mama Said.
Made upon his exit from the band after Use Your Illusion, Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds — despite the star’s middling vocals — is a surprisingly strong album that dramatically shows the rootsy sensibility he brought to G n’ R. It sounds like a good Keith Richards solo album (and is actually much better than the album Richards released around the same time). Stradlin replacement Gilby Clarke, previously with Raspberries-inspired power popsters Candy and pop-metal quartet Kill for Thrills, released his mediocre Pawnshop Guitars shortly before being booted from the band; he’s a featured participant on Slash’s album. Bassist Duff (Michael) McKagan — who played drums or bass in such Seattle bands as the Fartz, Fastbacks, Vains, 10 Minute Warning and the DTs — made his ill-advised singing debut on Use Your Illusion II and took the mic for a handful of The Spaghetti Incident?. His own album, with help from Clarke, Slash, Jeff Beck, Lenny Kravitz and Sebastian Bach, isn’t much better.
There are countless bonus tracks available on Guns n’ Roses’ imports, most containing live material. Try the self-titled Japanese EP, a convenient collection of early live tracks and (apparently mistakenly) an outtake from the Suicide sessions — with crowd noise added, natch.
While waiting for Axl and Slash to get their shit together for a new Guns n’ Roses album, Duff (singing and playing guitar) and drummer Matt Sorum hooked up with guitarist/singer Steve Jones (just before he headed off to relaunch the Sex Pistols) and bassist John Taylor (between Duran Duran obligations) to form the Neurotic Outsiders, a Hollywood jam session that became an actual group. Produced by Jerry Harrison, the band — which sounds pretty much like the slow-witted sum of its constituent hard-rocking parts — has the historical cheek to include a brisk cover of the Clash’s “Janie Jones” alongside less incendiary Jones and Taylor originals on Neurotic Outsiders.